Saturday, 15 March 2014

Why do young people take drugs?

Last week I was approached by a parent after he'd heard me present and when he was sure that nobody was within earshot he gently dug me in the ribs and said "C'mon, everybody does it ... it's just that not everyone admits to it ..." I wasn't absolutely sure what he was talking about at the start but it became obvious as the conversation went on that he was referring to illicit drug use. His line was that there wasn't anybody who hadn't dabbled at least a couple of times, whether it was a puff on a joint when they were in uni, or a line of coke at a party once - it was just that although everyone had done it at some point, it was only a brave few that talked about their past use openly.

He had come forward because of some of the data I had presented earlier that evening - i.e., the 2010 National Drug Household Survey results that clearly show that the majority of Australians have never used any illicit drug. It was quite clear that he found this extremely hard to believe - it didn't match his own personal experience and so he rejected it ... My response was simple and the one I always give to people who find this data difficult to comprehend - "Come and travel with me around the country and meet the many parents who have no understanding or experience of the drug world. It wasn't part of their life when they were growing up, they never saw it, weren't interested in it and never will be!"

It is often these people, who are now parents, who have the greatest problem understanding why anyone, particularly their child, would ever take drugs. Although all illicit drug use is confusing to them, it is the newer drugs such as ecstasy that really strikes fear into the hearts of these parents. I've had three emails this week from mothers who have recently discovered that their teens have been using ecstasy. They are totally at a loss at what to do and where to go - but they're biggest question is why would they take it and put their lives at risk?

So why do people, particularly young people, take ecstasy, or any drug for that matter? My usual response to parents who ask this is to get them to examine their own drug use – whether that be alcohol, tobacco or even coffee (caffeine) – and the answer usually comes down to pleasure! Although there are exceptions (and we'll get to that later) most people take drugs because they derive some sort of fun or pleasurable experience from it – whether it calms them down, relaxes them, supplies energy or gives them confidence. It's not something that people like to admit but it's the truth ... drugs can be fun!

One of the very first times I appeared on television was on the TODAY program. I was interviewed by Liz Hayes about ecstasy use and was asked about the negative effects of the drug. I reeled them off and she then asked me why anyone would take such a substance, those risks sounded terrible. My response was na├»ve to say the least – quite innocently I said that they enjoyed the perceived positive effects and had fun on the drug. The Channel 9 switchboard subsequently rang hot with complaints – how dare someone say that drug use was fun!

Different people take different drugs for different reasons. Most people who have little contact with illicit drugs believe that many of those who experiment with substances such as cannabis, ecstasy and the like have some bizarre psychological problem or that they are using to block out pain they are experiencing in their lives (i.e., they must come from terrible homes and have awful lives). For most, this couldn't be further from the truth. Most people who take drugs like ecstasy derive great pleasure from their drug use, they wouldn't keep taking the drug if they didn't, and not surprisingly, when they stop having fun, the vast majority of them cease their use. This can be a terribly difficult concept for a parent to grasp if they have never had any experience with drugs themselves - all they know is what they read in the papers and see on the television about young people's lives ruined by drug use. Getting them to understand that this is not everyone's experience (particularly when they first start taking the drug) is nigh on impossible.

At the same time, let's not minimize the risks associated with any drug use, let alone illicits. There are so many things that can go wrong and when it comes to illicit drugs, one of the greatest risks is that they are illegal, if you get caught, you could get a criminal record and your life could change forever. There are a range of physical, psychological and social risks associated with all drugs and of course, there are some young people who die as a result of their drug use. It is no surprise that parents worry ...

For those who make the decision to use drugs, however, they believe the perceived benefits far outweigh these potential negatives - trying to tell an ecstasy user about the possible risks is incredibly difficult. The positive experience that he or she is having when they take the drug is far more powerful than any information on short or long-term harms will ever be. For many, however, the pleasurable effects do not last forever – as time goes on they build up a tolerance to the drug and things change.  As I've said, this is why many people simply stop using drugs – they simply don't have the positive experiences on them that they used to. The trouble is that some don't stop using, even though they're having a bad time and that's where things can go horribly wrong ... dependence, both physical and/or psychological, can develop making it difficult for people to break out of what can be a very destructive cycle.

As I mentioned above, of course there are those who use drugs for different reasons - to remove themselves from their life, block out bad feelings and 'self-medicate' and, not surprisingly, these are usually the people who end up having major problems with their drug use. And once again, it needs to be acknowledged that someone who started using a drug for 'fun' can very quickly find themselves in great difficulty - you only need to look at the abuse of alcohol to see that this is a very real possibility.

Currently, one of our greatest problems is that the age of initiation into drug use is getting younger and younger. Available evidence shows that there are not more teens experimenting with illicits, but those that do are using earlier than in the past. We know that the younger a person begins using drugs, the greater the problems they will have in the future. When we attempt to give drug education to anyone it is imperative that we give them accurate information – this includes the reason why most people use drugs. If we don't acknowledge that some people enjoy the effects of drugs, how will we ever appear credible enough to be able to challenge them with the negative consequences?

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Drinking games: Are there additional risks due to social media?

Eight teenagers are sitting on the floor, each with a marker and a shot glass in front of them. A shot of beer is slammed back by each of them and another mark is drawn onto their arm. Another one has to be poured and drank before another minute goes past. They are playing the Century drinking game (or Centurions as it is also known) and the whole idea is to drink 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes without vomiting!

This is scary enough with beer (at least that is fairly self-limiting - you drink, you bloat and you throw-up!) but this week I heard of a group of teens who were playing this game with spirits! Attempting to consume 100 shots of a drink like vodka in one session, no matter what time period is extremely dangerous, but in 100 minutes, it's absolutely terrifying!

Drinking games have most probably been around for as long as alcohol. There are so many of them (Wikipedia lists 75!) that one website actually has categorised them into five distinct groups - standard, card, skill, movie and coin - for easier access!

They have recently made the news because of the 'NeKNominate' phenomenon. This online 'game' involves players filming themselves downing drinks and posting the videos (usually via social media such as Facebook), daring others to outdo the stunts with increasingly large amounts of alcohol or in dangerous situations. The media has reported a number of deaths related to this activity and it really has brought the whole issue of drinking games and their potential risks back in the public eye.

Although most closely associated with American college students, a quick Google search of the term 'drinking games' will direct you to hundreds of websites targeting Australian university students, backpackers from around the world and realistically anybody who may be looking for a way of getting as drunk as possible in the shortest amount of time ...

A great example of this is a site called Drinking Games. On this American site you can search for a game of your choice, based on the type of game played as well as required 'danger level'. Danger ratings are ranked from 'For Designated Drivers' through to 'Last Day on Earth'. Visitors to the site are told that "Whatever your drinking needs are we probably have the answer for you right here. Plan an entire night of festivities that will leave your friends and livers in destruction!" The most bizarre thing about this is that they go on to tell visitors that they should read their 'drink responsibly' section - they're obviously trying to cover their backs but really?

Let's look at drinking games realistically - as much as they're sometimes sold as 'icebreakers' or 'great ways to get to know new people' - they're really about getting drunk! When it comes to potential risks, the simple fact is that if you drink too much, too quickly, at the very least you could end up very unwell, and at worst you could be dead!

As already stated, this is not a new phenomenon and when you look at some of the games that are being promoted on these websites (many of which have been around for ages) it really is a miracle that not more people have died as a result of taking part in this type of activity over the years. That is not to say that deaths do not occur. Certainly quite a few of the deaths that I have been involved with have involved drinking games, usually young people skolling back drink after drink in some bizarre competition until they pass out and never wake up again. Time and time again I am asked by adults who have heard my presentation, "How did I get through my teen, I did such stupid things!" My answer is simple. What usually gets people through their dangerous adolescent behaviour is 'good luck', that's it, pure and simple!

So has the internet and social media changed drinking games? Are there additional risks associated with drinking games that didn't exist in the past?

Certainly one of the biggest changes is access. As I've said, drinking games have been around forever but in the past your experience in this area was usually limited due to your immediate social group. Nowadays young people cannot only access information about what drinking games to play but are also able to watch videos of activities that they may not even have thought of in their wildest dreams ... There are also a range of sites dedicated specifically to the sale of board games that are based around getting as drunk as possible. YouTube has countless numbers of videos of young (and not so young) people providing demonstrations of how to play some of the most dangerous games you could imagine.

We live in the age of the mobile phone (everything has to be photographed or videoed) and what I am increasingly seeing in schools are young men and women who take part in drinking games, get themselves in a terrible state and then discover images or film of their experience being posted and widely distributed in the days after ... Worryingly, some young people wear these experiences as a 'badge of honour' and actually post them themselves. For some, it doesn't matter what gets put up on Facebook or whatever, it's about how many people see it and how many 'Likes' they get that really counts. It's no surprise then that in this age of social media and its increasing importance, particularly in young people's lives, that 'NekNominate' took off the way it did. The 'here's what I did, now try to beat it' mentality makes perfect sense in this world ...

So what do we do about it? There have been the usual calls to 'ban' this and that and put pressure on social media companies to ensure more safeguards and warnings are put into place but really haven't we already learnt that this doesn't work particularly well?

Young people just do dumb things, they always have, they always will, the best we can do is to try to keep them as safe as possible during this time by giving them some basic information and skills to look after themselves and their friends. Of course we need to try to prevent them drinking 100 shots of vodka in 100 minutes - that's just ridiculous behaviour - but we're certainly not going to be able to stop them if that's what they want to do! Internet access and the celebration of high risk behaviour via social media only adds to the risks. You would just hope that they know what those risks are and when things go wrong they have some idea of what to do ...